Chris Long: Situations, Sacks and Draft Statuses

Chris Long’s face isn’t familiar to the nationwide NFL audience, but that doesn’t mean he’s not a star in St. Louis.

It’s been tough to gain any real recognition playing for the St. Louis Rams in recent years. If you ask the casual NFL fan to name a handful of their players, the list likely starts with Steven Jackson and ends with Sam Bradford immediately after. Jackson’s recognition was garnered some time ago, while Bradford is only really known for being a former first overall pick. Rams fans can’t really argue with that, their team hasn’t been close to a winning season more often than not during the last decade.

Although it’s understandable that the Rams’ star players get overlooked, it doesn’t mean that they’re not equally as talented or productive as those who are celebrated elsewhere. Every team in the NFL has some talent. Even the 0-16 Detroit Lions had Calvin Johnson starting 16 games for them and he wasn’t a shadow of himself back then either, he still caught over 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns. This year the Oakland Raiders have a receiver as good as Denarius Moore, while the Jacksonville Jaguars have Eugene Monroe and the New York Jets have Muhammed Wilkerson.

Because of the draft system, it’s very difficult for an NFL team to have no talent. Considering the Rams have had at least one pick in the top 20 of every draft since they took Jackson in 2004, it would have been next to impossible for them to come away with no talent at all during that time. They did have their monumental misses, Jason Smith comes to mind, but they also have had a number of hits. One hit in particular is star pass-rusher Chris Long.

Long was taken with the second overall pick in the 2008 draft. His early struggles in the league were compounded by the fact that he was taken one spot ahead of quarterback Matt Ryan, who’s impact in Atlanta wit the Falcons was both immediate and very, very impressive. While Ryan was starting and helping the Falcons to the top, Long was a bit-part player on a team destined for the bottom.

After two seasons of mediocrity at best, Long started 16 games in his third season and appeared to be showing some promise. Even then though, he was playing on the left side of the defensive line, something that was somewhat looked down on considering where he was drafted. Getting 8.5 sacks from that position solidified Long’s status as a worthwhile starter in the league, but when he followed that up with 13 the following year, the buzz began to grow.

Long managed 13 sacks on a team that went 2-14. That doesn’t even seem feasible. It was an impressive enough feat alone, but considering their record and the secondary behind him, it appeared to be simply phenomenal on the onset.

With an improved secondary and a new talented, young pass-rushing partner playing across from him in 2012, expectations for Long were through the roof. He didn’t have the same statistical output, but he wasn’t too far off…

Layout of the Process

Every sack was considered and examined under this set of criteria:

  • Where and how the defender lined up.
  • Whether the player beat a blocker or not.
  • The quality and position of those blockers was also noted.
  • Whether the player was double-teamed or not.
  • Whether the player was involved in a stunt with a teammate or not and the effects of that stunt.
  • The primary reason for the sack.
  • The game situation ie: time, quarter, score, down and distance.
  • How the player beat attempted blocks.
  • Whether the player attacked the football or settled for the tackle on the quarterback’s body.
  • How long it took the player to get to the quarterback.
  • How many yards each sack pushed the offense back by.
  • Where the player broke into the backfield.
  • Where the player tackled the quarterback.

Long’s Overall Results

Six players on the Rams’ defense had more snaps last year than Long, but four of those were defensive backs and the other two were linebackers. Long had 900 total snaps during the year, with 568 of those spent rushing the quarterback. He never dropped into coverage.

Long got to the quarterback 12 times for 11.5 sacks. That gives him a sack percentage of 2.12, which is the lowest of any pass-rusher from this series so far.

Every single one of his sacks came from a left defensive end position, with two of those coming from the stance of a linebacker. He never stunted with a teammate for a sack and was only double teamed once. On that double team, he didn’t beat a blocker and was only able to tackle the quarterback, Russell Wilson, because he scrambled away from pressure elsewhere.

Only three of Long’s sacks came when the Rams were playing from behind, while six came when playing with a lead. Never was the opposition more than seven points ahead when Long got to the quarterback however. Against the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Long had sacks in level games, twice in the first quarter and once in overtime. Long had five sacks in the first quarter, four in the second quarter, two in the third and one in overtime. Unusually, Long didn’t have a single sack in the fourth quarters of games.

Except for two occasions when he beat the right guard outside and inside, every single time Long penetrated the pocket he did so past the right tackle of the offense. Only four times did he get past outside however. The only offensive tackles he beat on those plays were Bobby Massie and Breno Giacomini, once each. Long is not a speed rusher, he never has been and never will be, but that doesn’t mean that he is slow. Long is explosive and he used that explosion to beat the tackles inside six times.

Only once did Long take the quarterback down outside the pocket, against Russell Wilson on the occasion that he beat Giacomini outside.

Long had a consistency on different downs, ending drives with five third down sacks, three sacks on second down and four on first down. Peculiarly, Long only sacked the quarterback on first and 10 once however.

Method Analysis

Timestamp Players Beat Speed Bull Combination Move?
CHI, Q1 05:12 None No No No No
CHI, Q3 11:29 Michael Bush Yes No No No
ARI, Q2 15:00 Bobby Massie Yes No No No
MIA, Q1 10:29 None No No No No
SF, OT 02:00 Anthony Davis No No No Stack and Shed
NYJ, Q1 03:33 Shonn Greene No No No Shed
NYJ, Q2 13:20 Austin Howard No No No Inside Step
BUF, Q2 05:30 None No No No No
TB, Q1 06:58 Demar Dotson No No No Swim
SEA, Q1 08:06 None No No No No
SEA, Q2 02:15 None No No No No
SEA, Q3 11:19 Breno Giacomini No Yes No No

A large percentage of Long’s sacks didn’t require him to beat a blocker. In fact, he more than anyone benefited from plays when he wasn’t required to get past a blocker for a sack. These were either a result of quarterbacks with poor pocket presence or blown assignments from offensive linemen. Long had five unblocked sacks, three of which were a result of poor quarterback play and two others from blown assignments.

Both blown assignment plays were alike.

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Long is lined up at the left defensive end spot on the defensive line, on the inside shoulder of right tackle Breno Giacomini. He is the fifth defender from the left, as part of the six players threatening to attack the pocket. The Seahawks only have six players tight to the formation, so any blitz from the Rams that includes all of these players will require each blocker to handle a defender one-on-one.

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The Seahawks initially appear to react well to the blitz. The Rams aren’t overloading either side of the formation as each player comes in a straight line towards the quarterback from where they line up. There are three defenders to either side and three blockers in position to pick them up.

Long is attacking the b-gap(gap between the right guard and right tackle), but Giacomini is coming inside to pick him up to stop him from getting to the quarterback.

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However Giacomini is unsure of his assignment. He initially moves inside, but immediately brings himself back outside meaning that he is caught in no man’s land. While his attention is on Jo-Lun Dunbar, right guard JR Sweezy(number 64) is concentrating completely on James Laurinaitis in the middle of the field.

This allows Long to run straight through the gap with a direct line to Russell Wilson in the pocket. Wilson, with pressure coming up the middle and edge defenders holding the integrity of the overall rush, has nowhere to go.

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The exact same blitz sent Long free earlier in the season against the Miami Dolphins. On that occasion it was the right guard who was unsure of his assignment and allowed Long into the backfield unopposed, but it was a similarly easy play for the defensive end to make.

This is what I like to call a scheme sack. It’s the blitz that forces the offensive lineman to lose his assignment, not anything that Long does. Long deserves the credit for making the play, but that credit shouldn’t amount to much. He made a play that 95 percent of the players playing in the league would be able to make. The only reason he was the one credited with the sack is because he was in the right position. Not because of any talent he has.

But that is not to say he doesn’t have talent.

Long isn’t an athlete in the mould of Julius Peppers or Aldon Smith and he doesn’t resemble Cameron Wake or Von Miller coming off the edge. He does however have just about enough of everything to get by. He is listed at 6’3 and 270 lbs, but it’s not his measurables that matter as much as his motor and technique.

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Plenty of players can show off high-motors and great effort early on in games, but where the fitness levels and effort really come into play is later on in the game. After battling for four quarters and 13 minutes of overtime, Long was still bringing the heat against the San Francisco 49ers.

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With the Rams blitzing, Long is in a one-on-one battle with right tackle Anthony Davis. Davis is one of the better offensive tackles in the NFL, but he quickly concedes ground to Long’s bull-rush as he is most likely tiring at this stage of the game.

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Long pushes Davis back before getting underneath his shoulder pads to stack him in an upright position. This allows him to look for the quarterback before attacking the gap that has been created by his initial move. Davis is still in position to stop Long from getting to the quarterback, but Long is using his speed and strength to shed his attempted block as he moves into the backfield.

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Long and a teammate simultaneously arrive at the quarterback to share the sack.

The nice thing about this move is that it translates to all areas of the field and works on all types of offensive linemen so long as Long can execute it properly. Below he easily disposes of New York Jets’ right tackle Austin Howard to get to Mark Sanchez.

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Howard is not a top offensive tackle by any measure. Yet, he wasn’t the worst blocker that Long beat last year and not that far off the best. Breno Giacomini and Anthony Davis were the only legitimately respectable pass protectors that Long actually beat last year.

Names Snaps Sacks Allowed PFF Grade*
Michael Bush 57 1 -1.8
Bobby Massie 707 13 -16.9
Anthony Davis 640 9 7.5
Shonn Greene 74 1 0.4
Austin Howard 591 10 -5.1
Demar Dotson 610 7 7.4
Breno Giacomini 597 5 0.2
Total 3276 46 -8.3
Average 468 6.57 -1.19

*PFF Grade is for pass blocking only
All Statistics courtesy of PFF

Playing on the left side means that Long won’t see the top offensive linemen in the NFL from week-to-week, but beating players like Greene, Massie(early in the season) and Bush isn’t anything to put on the resume of a defensive end looking to be considered one of the best in the league at his position.

Outside of his sacks, Long did hit the quarterback nine times last year and pressure him 55 times in total. He was inconsistent from game to game. He was shut out completely against the Green Bay Packers and wasn’t much better against the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots(a blowout).  On other occasions he was seemingly unblockable however, getting seven hurries in a game three times and five more in two others.

So even though he’s not always getting there, he is consistently pressuring the opposing passer. Again, that speaks to his high-motor and strength.

Timestamp Quarterback Players Beat Attacks Ball? Time Elapsed Yards
CHI, Q1 05:12 Jay Cutler None No 4.3 2
CHI, Q3 11:29 Jay Cutler Michael Bush No 2.8 10
ARI, Q2 15:00 Kevin Kolb Bobby Massie No 2.8 9
MIA, Q1 10:29 Ryan Tannehill None No 2.0 5
SF, OT 02:00 Colin Kaepernick Anthony Davis No 2.9 8
NYJ, Q1 03:33 Mark Sanchez Shonn Greene No 3.3 3
NYJ, Q2 13:20 Mark Sanchez Austin Howard No 2.8 3
BUF, Q2 05:30 Ryan Fitzpatrick None No 3.0 4
TB, Q1 06:58 Josh Freeman Demar Dotson No 2.8 6
SEA, Q1 08:06 Russell Wilson None No 3.9 7
SEA, Q2 02:15 Russell Wilson None No 1.9 9
SEA, Q3 11:19 Russell Wilson Breno Giacomini No 2.6 10
Total N/A 7 0 35.1 76
Average N/A 0.58 0 2.93 6.33

It’s no surprise that Long doesn’t attack the football. Playing on the openside at left defensive end and not being a speed-rusher, he doesn’t have many opportunities to attack the ball before the quarterback sees him coming.

Maybe indicative of what Long could do with a better secondary supporting him, he was quicker to the quarterback than anyone else who has undergone this study. That list includes players like JJ Watt, Von Miller, Cameron Wake, Chris Clemons and Bruce Irvin. However, his number is also somewhat inaccurate because the results are tainted by how many free runs he had at the quarterback.

Verdict

It can be cliche to use the term high-motor with certain players. It’s definitely applicable with Chris Long and I wouldn’t argue against him being described that way. He uses his tenacity in his favour much like Kyle Vanden Bosch did for years. Long isn’t an exceptionally gifted pass rusher, but he has proven himself more than capable of putting up big numbers despite playing in a bad situation.

With the Rams’ defense growing around him and the offense expecting to be more explosive this coming season, Long should have many, many more opportunities to use his talents and get to the quarterback. However, with Robert Quinn on the other side of the defensive front, he may now actually be the second best pass-rusher on his team.

Quinn’s presence should only help Long’s effectiveness, even if his success takes away somewhat from his production. Having led the Rams for so long through the toughest of times, Long faces the prospect of falling into the shadow of a teammate in the same way he has fallen into the shadows of the other dominant pass-rushers in the NFC West.

Long is a good football player who faces more scrutiny than most because of where he was drafted and the time it took for him to develop. His draft spot shouldn’t matter at all at this point in his career. He has turned himself into a very good, although not great, football player who can help the Rams return to the playoffs.

You can follow Cian Fahey on twitter @Cianaf